Phi Beta Cons

Exhibit A on Incentives

At first glance, it appears to be just another ho-hum report about efforts to improve instruction on the college level. But the Inside Higher Ed article about the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) is my Exhibit A for understanding the incentives in universities.

NCAT has worked for a decade to help universities cut costs and improve learning. The boilerplate surrounding this work is all too familiar — don’t fall asleep reading this example of course redesign from Indiana University-Purdue University:

Jump Start begins with an intensive four-day workshop that focuses on best practices in online course design and starts faculty working with a support team consisting of an instructional design consultant, an instructional technology consultant, an information resources consultant, and a representative from UITS Media Design and Production who provides multimedia development support for the course.

I have to wonder who would sit through four days of this kind of thing, but Inside Higher Ed says that the NCAT course redesigns initiated ten years ago were effective — they lowered costs and improved learning. Now, however, the cost reductions, at least, are being ignored. Few schools are even monitoring costs any more. “You’re dealing with a culture that does not care about reducing cost,” says Carol Twigg, president of NCAT.

Of course they’re not going to monitor costs. Why should they? The grant that spurred the redesign is long spent. My guess is that the improved student learning has faded, too.

In my view, a program like Jump Start is just another of the top-down programs from smart, well-meaning facilitators that have little to do with what faculty want.

Do courses need redesign? Yes. But outstanding teachers probably redesign their courses every year, maybe every week, using technology where it makes sense. Did it take a federal grant for professors teaching giant lecture classes to learn to distribute “clickers” to students allowing them to vote “yes” or “no” to the instructor’s questions? I don’t know, but I doubt it.

And plenty of other instructors probably won’t teach effectively no matter how many four-day instructional seminars they attend. The issue is incentives. Until now, colleges haven’t needed to cut costs, so they haven’t done so. Until now, good college teaching has been poorly rewarded (compared to research), and bad college teaching has been ignored. When the revolution comes — that is, when competition from outside the academy starts drawing away students — course redesign will be all the rage, grants or no grants.  

Jane S. Shaw — Jane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

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